‘Fat City’s’ Rice House is back in business

02/23/2014 4:35 PM

02/25/2014 8:20 AM

The institution that made Durham the “Diet Capital of the World” is back in business, and the “Ricers” are glad of it.

“I’m going back in March,” said insurance broker Craig Goodman, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

“It was really, really hard (when they closed),” said Kathleen Hanline, a nurse from Omaha, Neb. “It was kind of like a lifeline.”

Goodman and Hanline were among several hundred alumni of the Rice Diet Clinic who lost an important part of their lives when the 73-year-old program closed in late 2012.

Now their lifeline is back as the Rice House Healthcare Program ( ricehouse.org), with Rice Diet veteran John Aycoth as CEO and the former program’s medical director, endocrinologist Francis A. Neelon, filling that position again.

“I just felt this program was too important to let it die,” said Aycoth, a former Washington lobbyist who lost 138 pounds on the Rice Diet from 2000-02. “It was always a very important part of my life, because I changed dramatically my health care and the way I look at health care.”

‘Fat City’

The Rice Diet is a strict regimen of 800 calories and 400 milligrams of salt per day. Walter Kempner, a Duke University physician, came up with the diet of white rice, fruit juice, vitamins and mild exercise to treat hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease; Kempner began using it with patients in 1939.

His treatment had spectacular results, with the side benefit that patients lost a lot of weight. In the mid-1940s, Kempner began using the diet to treat obesity and, in an increasingly shape-conscious America, word of the Duke Rice Diet spread, making Durham a mecca for the obese.

Duke and the Rice Diet severed connections in 2002, but the program carried on independently. Durham as diet center has long since gained nationwide notoriety: Esquire magazine ran a 1973 cover story on “Fat City,” and The New York Times applied the label “Diet Capital of the World” in 2005.

“There’s just something comforting about Durham in general, I’ve found,” Goodman said. “It’s very health-oriented, the whole town.”

Robert Rosati, the retired Duke physician who previously owned and ran the Rice Diet Program, decided to close in 2012, at the time saying he intended to reorient the business. Aycoth, who said he had been getting tired of Washington, saw an opportunity and tried to buy the program, along with the “Rice Diet” trademark.

That didn’t work out. Instead, Aycoth trademarked “Rice House Healthcare Program” with the subtitle, “Based on the original principles of Walter Kempner, M.D.”

Food is ‘excellent’

Kempner’s principles could be summed up in the slogan: “Eat simple foods, simply.” At Rice House Healthcare, Aycoth said the program means more than just losing weight.

“Health care takes it back to covering the five areas Dr. Kempner wanted to focus on: Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, kidney (and) heart disease, and obesity,” Aycoth said. The name “Rice House” was “something former patients of the Rice Diet could relate to,” since that was what the diet’s headquarters was called from 1939 on, he said.

Rice House Healthcare is housed in the Kempner Building – aka Building 800 in the Central Professional Park on Duke Street near Duke Regional Hospital. The road in front is called “Walter Kempner Way,” Aycoth said.

Aycoth, Neelon and clinic director Anne Akwari have changed one Kempner practice: Rice House’s menu has expanded outside of rice and juice to include a variety of vegetables, cereals, fruit and a little fish.

“The food is excellent. You’re eating small amounts, but they give you a lot of variety. I really enjoy it,” Goodman said.

The new Rice House has a staff nutritionist who teaches patients to prepare food “that is satisfying and fits in with what we’re teaching here,” Akwari said, to help participants stick with healthy eating once they go home.

“(The nutritionist) goes to the grocery store with you and shows you the good parts of the grocery store and the bad parts,” said John Bacot, a Presbyterian minister in Greenwood, S.C.

A large part of the program, past and present, is coming back to Durham. Bacot, Goodman and Hanline have each made multiple visits after initial stays of several weeks.

“It helps to be in a community of folks that are all dealing with the same problem, if you want to call it that,” Bacot said. “We encourage each other.

“I usually come for a month, and I can usually lose between 20 and 25 pounds,” he said. “But the main part about it is, I (can stop) my blood pressure medicine, and I feel better and my quality of life is so much better. I don’t know that this place has extended my life as much as it’s made the quality of my life better.”


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